Why does it feel like we’ve been here before? Let me count the ways: the zillionth beloved-film-to-banal-musical adaptation the West End has seen, Big belittles its source material and turns endearing quirk into generic mush.
It shares a fair amount of plot with Elf, another puzzling adaptation that thudded into the Dominion at shockingly unjustifiable prices. What’s not surprising, given the two shows look and sound exactly the same, is that it’s created by the same director Morgan Young and same producer Michael Rose, and even features the same principal cast member in Girls Aloud alumna Kimberley Walsh. What is surprising is that they’ve not learned any lessons.
The 1988 film was a breakout role for Tom Hanks. He played Josh Baskin, a 13-year-old boy who wishes he was big and wakes up to find he’s an adult. The musical by Richard Maltby Jr, David Shire and John Weidman followed in 1996. What this production (premiering apart from tryouts in Plymouth and Dublin in 2016) ignores is that musicals have moved on, and so has the world.
Take its wince-inducing gender politics: even if a woman existing solely as romantic foil was par for the course back then, seeing Kimberley Walsh turn to the audience and sing yet another song about a man is excruciating. Walsh is Susan, Josh’s love interest. They have sex. Josh is 13.
Aside from failing the Bechdel Test quite spectacularly, we’ve also got an all-white adult cast.
Walsh herself is perfectly sweet-natured as Susan, and there are glimmers of chemistry between her and Jay McGuiness as Josh. She can sing, although you don’t ever feel entirely in safe hands when the notes get too high, too low or too long.
McGuiness, Strictly winner and member of boyband The Wanted, bigs up the dorky charm, and he works well with young cast member Jobe Hart as best friend Billy.
The set relies on a mix of digital screens forming a big wall of video by Ian William Galloway and physical sets by Simon Higlett. The trouble is, there’s no attempt to make them match stylistically, and each makes the other look less real.
The score is almost entirely filler. A couple of moments have some synth or video game sounds in the orchestration, which at least give the score some kind of character, but they’re few and forgotten. As the second act opens, the music finds a moment of purpose, with a lovely song sung by Wendi Peters as Josh’s mum about missing her boy (Stop Time). She should probably be a bit more, I don’t know, completely distraught two weeks after her son has gone missing, but whatever. Peters is a highlight. Matthew Kelly is also clearly enjoying himself as toy company owner MacMillan, bringing a bit of fun to the show.
But mostly what we’ve got is too much of the bare minimum. A late dinner party scene should have been scrapped in tryouts, along with a few others.
Big was never really crying out to be a musical, and the production completely doesn’t justify its having been turned into one. The kind interpretation is that it’s unimaginative. The unkind one: just lazy.